The awesome thing about Shakespeare is the fact that you can use his plays as blank canvasses to paint on your directorial concept. They contain great, timeless stories that often work in just about any setting, and his classic Macbeth is no exception. For this DramaSoc production, director Wilem Powell has chosen to dress the play in politics, deception and quick wits, bringing us face to face with the superficial and secretive world that sits behind the closed doors of government activities.
As I’m sure many of you will know, whether you’re a seasoned Shakespeare scholar or an angsty young GCSE English student who hates the playwright, the play follows the story of Macbeth, an army general who craves something more than blood and glory on the battlefield. After quite a mighty battle, Macbeth is visited by three witches, and they plant the idea in his head that he’ll be a glorious king in the very near future. There’s just one problem, though: Scotland already has a king, and it isn’t long before Macbeth’s wife manipulates him into murdering the ruler. It’s all downhill from there as Macbeth and his wife struggle to deal with the guilt and the idea of paying the price for their crimes.
So it’s essentially the same story every time you see it, like one of your favourite films. Shakespeare’s plays are performed so frequently because of the endless possibilities you have in terms of customising them to engage with your audience and communicate messages. Powell’s production does this from the moment it starts, through key conceptual ideas being plonked in front of you from the moment you step into the theatre. The three witches (Bethany Hughes, Sarah Warham and Elizabeth Cooke) are actually hostages, dressed in orange jumpsuits and kneeling before Macbeth (Tim Kelly), snarling their prophecies at him. This helped to communicate the political concept to the audience straight away, with the hostages giving us a glimpse into the unseen world that lies beyond the government’s red tape. Their physicality was excellent, translating the grotesque nature of Shakespeare’s original characters into a modern setting with ease and terror alike.
Tim Kelly’s Macbeth is a cold, ruthless politician, and an excellent modern translation of the original power-hungry soldier, while Saffia Sage does exactly what her character Lady Macbeth does and steals the spotlight with her fantastic characterisation. She’s manipulative, deceptive and emotionally raw: what all great Lady Macbeths should be. The rest of the cast were also awesome, with Harry Elletson, Oliver Henn and Golfo Migos being excellent as the murderers and an extension of Macbeth’s guilty and unforgiving conscience. The whole cast worked well as a company and as ensemble, taking the stage by storm and executing Shakespeare’s text very nicely.
The set design is also fantastic – the Drama Barn was turned into a cold, bleak place and housed the proceedings of the play nicely. Television screens at the side of the set helped convey the modern concept to us, with a camera watching characters returning to the stage adding another dimension to the show, and reinforcing the themes of surveillance and media throughout. Simple changes in lighting and the show’s pulsing soundtrack signified changes in scenery, mood and atmosphere, and made the production even more engaging, stylish and brilliant.
This version of Macbeth is modern and incredibly relevant to the world we live in today. It’s well-rehearsed, designed and conceptualised, and there’s a lot that other productions of the Scottish Play could learn from it.
Macbeth played at Drama Barn at the University of York. For more information, see the York Students’ Union website.